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The Habitable Zone — we’ve only known our location at the edge since 2015

In our story thus far we find our little party of bipedal vertebrates adrift on a planet whose climate is experiencing hyperthermia — quickly approaching heat stroke. This world is already running on the inner edge of the zone for habitability as it orbits its nearby star. An orbital shift just slightly closer to Venus or sightly farther from Mars would render it as inhospitable to life as either of those two neighbor worlds.

That unfortunate ending could also be achieved by a subtle shift of its atmospheric chemistry — a mere one tenth of one percent change in a single component (carbon dioxide, for instance) could be enough to irreversibly doom all higher life forms, beginning with high-maintenance mammals such as our little party. A comparable shift in the opposite direction would return the comfortable conditions of the late Holocene in which we evolved.

There are no lifeboats, and no nearby world to colonize. We have to either repair the thermostat on this vessel or perish.

If we listen to the best minds among us, we know that it is no longer adequate to curtail air pollution, even if we ended fossil fuels by 2020. We have to net sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and draw out at least a third of what is already up there — the legacy emissions of our predecessors. We need to do it fast — within decades. Given the tipping points already crossed, we may need to take down even more, even faster. We’ll find that out soon enough. The important thing is to just get started.

Dr. Glen Peters, Senior researcher, CICERO:

We often point to the faster-than-expected deployment of renewables, but rarely point to the slower-than-expected deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is a key technology in scenarios, both with bioenergy and fossil fuels. CCS is a tougher nut to crack than thought due to technical, political and social constraints. According to most emission scenarios, if we don’t have large-scale CCS, then we can’t keep below 1.5/2C.

Hannah Mowat, forests and climate campaigner for Fern:

The level of ambition shown by countries in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) puts us on a pathway upwards of 3.6C. So, at the moment, much greater levels of ambition are needed from countries to put us on a path of emissions reductions that are steep enough to minimize any reliance on negative emissions (possibly to zero for 2C), to give us the greatest possible chance of staying below the 2 and 1.5C limits. Nothing should distract us from the need to shift to a fossil free world in the next decades.

Of the drawdown options, some work better than others. Some are easier to scale, some more difficult, or expensive. Some are downright dangerous. Some are snake oil. In the snake oil category is the current darling of technocornucopians: BECCS — Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. In little more than a decade, BECCS had gone from being a highly theoretical, money-changers’ proposal for Sweden’s paper mills to earn double carbon credits to becoming a “key negative emissions technology” promoted by the IPCC to avoid dangerous climate change.

Dr Joeri Rogelj, Energy research scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis:

Any technology deployed at large scale comes with pros and cons, and negative emissions technologies are no exception. Currently, no negative emissions technology [NET] entirely avoids potential detrimental societal side effects in a worst case scenario, but neither is there a single (low-carbon) energy technology that exclusively provides benefits. Nevertheless, our society will continue to produce energy in the future, and emissions have to be reduced to meet the Paris Agreement’s objectives. Technology preferences, thus, have to be considered against this backdrop: policies ensuring that detrimental side effects are limited are essential.

Considering these limitations, the most promising negative emissions technology appears to be the combination of centralized bioenergy power plants with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). In contrast to other negative emissions technologies, this technology provides the additional benefit of producing energy instead of merely consuming it. There surely are issues for its up-scaling. In general, negative emissions technologies’ only benefit is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Without CO2 emissions being penalized or strongly discouraged in some way, a large-scale deployment does never seem realistic. Then, there are further issues related to land and water competition for biomass production — this is a more general problem, not just for negative emissions — and related to safe ways to transport and store CO2. There is no silver bullet solution to climate change mitigation.

At first blush this sounds realistic. We can deal with criticism that “in general, negative emissions technologies’ only benefit is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere” by adding other benefits. In fact we could add enough benefits that NET pays for itself and even increases wealth, growing all 8 forms of capital in the process. We could make terra preta soils this way — making electricity from biomass crops or ag wastes, making biochar in the process and converting that to biofertilizer and probiotic feeds.

Sadly, that is not what the BECCS people have in mind. They are more into “sky mining;” replacing fossil coal with plantation monocropped charcoal briquettes, shipped on railcars and burned in gigawatt steam plants to keep the lights on in distant skyscrapers and running subterranean, 135-mph Tesla autobahns, perhaps in the process sending a portion of the flue gas from the briquette burn down a pipe to the bottom of the ocean. That last stage would come at many times greater cost than the entirety of the other parts of the process, including the Tesla autobahns.

BECCS was studied last month by CarbonBrief. It appeared at first, in the early 2000s, as a backstop technology in case we got bad news from the climate system. Today it has become the savior-in-chief for technological civilization.

The acronym BECCS first appeared in 2001 in a paper in Science that suggested that switching from fossil to biomass energy and then storing the carbon emissions underground could sequester 500 gigatons of carbon over the course of the 21st century, which represents some 35% of projected emissions. The paper’s authors said:

“The long-run potential of such a permanent sink technology is large enough to neutralize historical fossil fuel emissions and satisfy a significant part of global energy and raw material demand.”

This is a big claim. It begs scrutiny. As CarbonBrief discovered, BECCS fails on several grounds.

Rob Bailey, Director of energy, environment and resources, Chatham House:

Before 2050, speculative technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct air capture and ocean geoengineering offer little promise, due to a variety of economic and technological hurdles. For now, less exotic land-use practices, such as soil carbon management, biochar, forestation and wetlands restoration, offer more promise.

These are proven, and negative emissions can be achieved with immediate effect.

***

Speculative negative emissions technologies may be worse than chimeras if they result in the false comfort that continued fossil fuel emissions can simply be offset, thereby diverting financial and policy resources from conventional mitigation. This would be reckless. It is clearly less risky not to emit a ton of CO2 in the first place, than to emit one in expectation of being able to sequester it for an unknown period of time, at unknown cost, with unknown consequences, at an unknown date and place in the future.

Prof Ottmar Edenhofer, Co-chair of AR5 Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Chief economist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research:

It is clear that the infrastructure needed for BECCS, in particular, is massive in many of the current low-stabilization pathways and that we are late in ramping this up. On average, these pathways require investments into BECCS of $138bn and $123bn per year for electricity and biofuel respectively in 2050.

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The industry is not without its cheerleaders, however. Prof David Keith, Gordon McKay professor of applied physics at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; Executive chairman of Carbon Engineering:

All else equal, a ton of carbon removed by injecting it into a deep geological reservoir, or by adding alkalinity to the ocean, buys us more environmental protection than a ton of carbon captured in a forest or in biochar mixed into soils. Both both deserve more attention and research, but it’s dumb policy to treat them equally.

John Lanchbery, Head of climate change policy, RSPB:

We have reservations about the practical feasibility and costs of deploying NETs [Negative Emissions Technologies] on a large scale and, so far, none have been. As the IPCC AR5 points out for BECCS: “The potential, costs and risks of BECCS are subject to considerable scientific uncertainty.” Even large scale monoculture plantations (afforestation), which are probably the most practical NET, would require vast amounts of water, hundreds of cubic kilometres per year, and would undermine efforts to increase food security, alleviate poverty and conserve biodiversity.

Yet reaching 1.5C will undoubtedly limit climatic impacts on biodiversity and food security, but will probably require negative emissions in the range of 450–1000 GtCO2 until 2100, even with aggressive emission reductions. A large proportion, if not all of this, could probably be achieved by the conservation and enhancement of natural forests, peatlands and other natural sinks and reservoirs — without recourse to NETs.

Prof Pete Smith, Professor of soils and global change, University of Aberdeen:

One advantage of BECCS relative to other NETs is that it produces rather than requires energy. Similar land and water constraints face afforestation/reforestation. For enhanced weathering of rocks that naturally absorb CO2, whilst the land areas required are vast, crushed rock could be spread on land without changing the land use, perhaps also providing benefits in terms of soil fertility (by raising the pH of acidic soils). The process is, however, currently costly and the mining and grinding of the rock is energy intensive. Direct air capture using chemicals is currently extremely costly and requires extremely high energy inputs, but it has a low land and water footprint.

Soil carbon sequestration can be applied on land without changing land use, and provides a range of co-benefits. It is inexpensive, but the sinks created are finite in duration and reversible. Biochar can produce some energy, but the more biochar that is produced, the less energy is generated. The land and water footprint for spreading biochar are negligible, but the land and water footprint of the biomass used as a feedstock for biochar can be large, as for BECCS.

Implications of transporting feedstocks for BECCS or biochar over large distances also need to be better understood. For any technology involving CCS, more large-scale demonstration projects are required to demonstrate efficacy of carbon storage and to learn by doing — to allow costs to be reduced and efficiencies improved ahead of larger scale roll-out.

Is BECCS even possible? Many have their doubts. Prof Sir David MacKay, Former chief scientific advisor, Department of Energy and Climate Change:

A concern about the IPCC-WG3 modelling of BECCS, incidentally, is that I expect it assumes perfectly rational and well-informed behavior. So, in the model, no-one would deforest an area to make a quick buck, because they would be aware of the loss of carbon stocks. Whereas, in reality, it is very difficult to measure carbon stocks in the landscape and, if there are subsidies for biomass without correct carbon stock measurement, it is quite possible that the subsidies would lead to biomass activities that have bad carbon effects in the landscape.

Well, I would say that [the scale of negative emissions technologies to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement] is technically deliverable, just about, but the way I always put it is this… The required scale of burial of CO2 by 2100 (measured as a mass buried per year) is, according to both back-of-envelope calculations and the IPCC WG3, about five times as great as today’s oil industry (measured in the same units as a mass extracted per year).

Is this technically deliverable? Yes, in principle, but only if many governments make clear that this is their intention, and agree a mechanism, for example, an agreement on a global carbon price, to get it delivered. Do I think it is a realistic view of what the world will do? No, not at the moment, because I think the Paris discussions completely ducked this issue, which is one of the most important issues out there.

Dr Oliver Geden, Head of EU division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

When accounting for all dimensions of feasibility, including social and political, it’s hard to imagine that carbon removal on the order of 600–800 GtCO2 — equaling 15–20 years of current annual emissions — can be realized during the 21st century. Based on terrestrial CDR only (like in today’s integrated assessment models) one would need approximately 500+ million hectares of additional land, that’s 1.5 times the size of India.

That’s obviously a political no-go, and the main reason why negative emissions haven’t been part of high-level climate negotiations so far, despite the fact that carbon removal has been seriously discussed in the IPCC since 2007 and is an integral part of RCP2.6, the IPCC scenario consistent with 2C. Until now, the introduction of CDR has mainly had the effect of covering political inaction. A strategic debate about how to use CDR within a broader portfolio of climate policy measures is clearly lacking. Most policymakers don’t even know the difference between net and gross negative emissions. For 2C, the world should cross the line into net zero around 2070, but the phase-in of carbon removal technologies will have to happen way before 2050.

Glen Peters adds:

Most carbon dioxide removal technologies require land. Reduced deforestation and increased afforestation will reduce the available land. Without rapid, perhaps infeasible, yield improvements, food production may take more land.

But Peters is missing an important point. He is thinking that any NET scenario requires land that will come out of the reforestation or food requirements, when in fact it gives land to those. When the agroforestry potential is considered, and the concept of carbon cascades introduced — forest then food then energy then biochar then more forest — these elements do not exist in opposition to one another. They are a team. Putting rotational food forests on an area 1.5 times the size of India is not a loss, it’s a gain.

Hannah Mowat sums it up:

The only promising approach to achieving negative emissions is the restoration of terrestrial ecosystems, including accelerating the recovery of degraded forests. Such restoration has the potential to achieve a maximum estimated amount of 330 GtCO2 of removals by the end of the century.

Restoration of degraded natural ecosystems is not only possible today, but is an urgent intervention to meet multiple other environmental objectives, such as maintaining and enhancing biodiversity and halting desertification. These actions are also likely to be socially acceptable and effective if done with full consent and by rural communities and forest peoples. Evidence suggests that local people are the best guardians of forests and other ecosystems.

There are currently no technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere that can be employed at scale. It is very doubtful any will be available at scale within the timescale required. Furthermore, many of the proposed technologies are likely to have a dire social and environmental impact on food security, community land rights and biodiversity.

Dr. Stephan Singer, Director of global energy policy, WWF International:

This is not economical in the “classical” sense and truly inconvenient for some incumbents, but beneficial for the planet as a whole. Socially, developmentally and environmentally, this is superior for the billions of the poor and fragile ecosystems rather than relying on large scale BECCS, for instance, with unknown effects on food security. An effective phasing out of fossil fuels, besides other benefits, would also avoid the premature death of four million people annually from air pollution.

Yet, a certain part of negative emissions plays a key role now. Fostering natural carbon sinks in forests, grasslands and soils, if done properly, contribute tremendously to sustainable agriculture and forestry, as well as enhanced biodiversity.

Once this is all done, we might not need any of the other contentious technologies of negative emissions, such as BECCS and relying on unproven and leaky geological layers for CO2 storage for thousands of years. But actions have to be taken now!

The reality is that staying under the 1.5C threshold is now nigh-on impossible. Dr. Andrew King, a researcher in climate extremes at the University of Melbourne concedes that meeting the 1.5C target now means overshooting and coming back down. He told CarbonBrief, “This isn’t possible with current technologies.”

The thing is, we are going about this all wrong. The way forward is not trying to sustain the unsustainable — growing bigger megacities powered by gigawatt power monsters and hyperlooping them together while we send Space X missions to Mars to pave the way for waves of Virgin Galaxy tourists.

We need to face the facts. If we suddenly came up with a low cost fusion reactor that runs on seawater it would only hasten our demise.

The only way for our small party to survive is to step away from the captain’s chair and let Mother Nature retake the helm of this little blue spaceship in this great big galaxy. We can help, but we need to follow her orders.

In its new study of all available options, Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown mixes emission reducing technologies and methodologies with actual drawdown counterparts. Eliminating all Project Drawdown’s portfolio of renewable energy and conservation options, less than a quarter of the chosen 100 strategies selected for comparison can actually remove and sequester atmospheric carbon year-on-year:

  • Afforestation
  • Alternative cement
  • Bambooo
  • Biochar
  • Biomass (if holistically managed to optimize drawdown)
  • Bioplastic
  • Coastal wetlands
  • Farmland restoration
  • Green roofs
  • Managed grazing
  • Multistrata agroforestry
  • Nutrient Management
  • Peatlands (expanding)
  • Perennial Biomass
  • Regen Ag
  • Silvopasture
  • Temperate Forests
  • Tree intercropping
  • Tropical Forests
  • Tropical staple trees
  • Waste-to-energy (with CCS)

Both Project Drawdown and the BECCS crowd have one thing right. The problem is not technological. We know how to do this, even if is almost impossible. Landing men on the moon once seemed impossible, too. We did it with the help of computers less intelligent than your phone.

The problem is entirely one of social consensus. Right now we are in discord because those with the most to lose have muddied the waters to obscure their obscene profits from the destruction of Earth. The way forward is not to jail them (although it’s not a bad idea). The way forward through these recurrent economic obstacles is by bending the profit motive the way an aikido master receives an onrushing opponent. We need to bend the adversary’s momentum to switch the advantage. We need to tame capitalism from unconscionable excess to noble purpose. It is the only way to power our transition to warp speed.

Human ingenuity is already bending the curve with Mondragon-style cooperatives, Smart Money investment klatches, and Public Benefit (“B”) corporations or limited liability companies. Profit is not synonymous with greed. Any plant or animal that produces excess seed in order to assure a surplus to “lend” to start the next generation is engaged in capitalism.

A new class of Cool Bonds and these other strategies provide the seeds of a viral wave to carry the shift from annihilation highway to garden planet. While governments waffle and bicker, the alternative money people are who will step in to invest in afforestation, cool labs, bamboo, and biochar. They will do it at the trillion-dollar level, with or without Deutchebank, Goldman Sachs or a government dole.

As we write this it may seem as if the tide is drawing out, but what comes next will hit the business world like a tsunami. That tide will sweep along the politicians with it.

If you have money to invest, this is where you should invest it: carbon cascades; Cool Lab biorefineries; fishermens’ cooperatives; girls’ education; permaculture for hedge fund managers, not necessarily in that order. Find places to B. Not places to BECCS.

This post is part of an ongoing series we’re calling The Power Zone Manifesto. It is a series of building blocks that describe our existential climate dilemma and the only possible way to escape it. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. Albert Bates offers ecovillage apprenticeships, including Cool Lab trainings, this year at The Farm in Tennessee April through July. He is teaching a full permaculture course in Ireland in August and will be on speaking tours in Brazil, Germany, India and China in late 2017.

Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.

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